Stephen A. Smith at a live taping of "First Take" in 2021. Stephen A. Smith at a live taping of “First Take” in 2021. (Tori Lynn Schneider/The Tallahassee Democrat, via USA Today Sports.)

While Stephen A Smith has continued to make headlines and bring in monster ratings on First Take, he has built up his podcast, The Stephen A. Smith Show, independently and turned it into a significant player in the digital space.

With contract negotiations looming between Smith and ESPN, a new report imagines just how lucrative it could be for Smith to fold The Stephen A. Smith Show into the worldwide leader’s digital footprint as part of a new deal.

“Smith is about to sign a new deal with the network that will be worth more than $20 million a year,” wrote Lucas Shaw of Bloomberg in his Screentime newsletter this week. “The exact contours of that deal will depend on whether he grants ESPN ownership of his podcast, which he set up outside of the mothership, as well as other commitments.”

Shaw also reported Smith is “intent” on earning more than Pat McAfee, a friendly rival at the network with whom Smith has publicly and privately clashed in the past.

Shaw expects Smith to remain a fixture on ESPN’s NBA coverage, where he currently is a panelist on NBA Countdown and the network’s halftime show during premiere regular season broadcasts and the playoffs.

Still, Smith’s podcast sticks out as the most interesting wrinkle in these negotiations, largely because of the nature of McAfee’s deal at ESPN. Shortly after Smith left ESPN Radio in 2019 as part of his last contract, he moved to become the executive producer of First Take and run Max Kellerman off the show. Two years later, Smith launched his podcast with Audacy in conjunction with the release of his memoir.

Today, Smith boasts nearly 600,000 subscribers on YouTube. The show ranks in the top 50 of Chartable’s estimated global Top 200 sports podcast chart. Smith invested $1.5 million of his own money to build a studio for the podcast, which he has described as a cross between late-night television, daytime talk, and a sports podcast. He recently struck a deal with iHeartMedia to bring the show into its portfolio.

The question for ESPN is how it would brand and monetize the podcast. More Smith has proven to be good business for the worldwide leader, but it is not currently in the business of monetizing daily, digital solo talk shows from its top talent. McAfee’s show, despite its unique vibe and green cast, is fairly recognizable with its chatter, debate and interviews around the big stories of the day. Smith often monologues about politics, social issues, or his latest beef in addition to typical sports talk and interviews.

ESPN clearly is learning how to bring in revenue on YouTube and TikTok, and it would be easy to imagine simulcasting the show on ESPN2 or ESPN Radio. Still, the network is looking ahead to a leap to an over-the-top service, meaning it needs to think about exclusivity and what really makes viewers pay for content.

Smith and McAfee continue to be parallel one another when it comes to status and salary at ESPN. They could have even more in common before long, if Shaw’s speculation over Smith bringing his show to ESPN comes to pass.

[Screentime from Bloomberg]

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.